We humans tend to judge by appearances before getting to know someone. I had heard about Moondil Jahan all summer while working for the Center for International Education. She was our latest Watson Fellowship winner, and she was going to be leaving the United States soon. By the time of our interview I had formed a hazy image in my head of what she must be like from our press releases on the Watson and the performances I’d had the pleasure of watching… both her dancing troupe and the Afro-Latin drumming ensemble. She seemed so big then – drawing the audience’s attention her direction with her powerful stage presence – the very picture of confidence. You can imagine my surprise when she walked in for our interview. Clashing with my first perception: there stood a slight girl.
She greeted me with one of the brightest smiles I have ever seen in my life.
It was at that moment that I really started to understand that Watson Fellowship winners surprise you in unexpected ways. How many students had I met at Berea College that did the exact same thing?
Pre-departure – What does it feel like? Connections?
Upon being asked whether or not she was scared or worried before her departure, Moondil gave a resolute no. If anything, she said she was excited. The confidence I had seen in many of her performances appeared again. Moon explained that she was sincerely thankful for her African-Latin Percussion Ensemble instructor – Tripp Bratton. He was responsible for helping her create contacts in the various countries she wanted to visit for her Watson. With his guidance, she was able to establish relationships with Sayon Camara in Guinea, Gideon Alorwoyie in Ghana, a past Berea graduate by the name of Aminata Cairo in Amsterdam, and other drummers around the world. These people were able to help her with topics on drumming, dancing, or both. She had spent a year or more talking with these people, and was ready to meet them in person.
Moon stressed the importance of building connections. These connections helped her Watson project come together. An allegory she used when describing the process was like using strings. A person writing a Watson should be able to connect everything together, and as she talked I imagined the Watson proposal as a big tapestry. Consider each element of the Watson as a string – the countries, the topics, the places, the people, and the things you chose to do and study. She found how those strings related to one another, and soon her proposal had coalesced into a beautiful hand-crafted piece of art.
It was through her process of building up contacts and connections that she stumbled upon an astounding opportunity. Moondil became familiar with the drumming of Guinean drummer Famoudou Konaté while educating herself about African rhythmaculture. She had read many of his interviews and really looked up to him. She mentioned his honorary professorship (in Didactic of African Musical Practice) from the University of Berlin Arts with a grin. She talked about how he toured Europe for decades.
One day Moondil was talking to her contact in Guinea, Sayon Camara. As they were talking, he mentioned that he had learned drumming from Famoudou Konaté. Even more astoundingly, he told Moondil that she could meet him! When telling us this, she was practically vibrating in her seat from excitement. Her process of building contacts and meeting people had opened a world of opportunities to her.
Writing: Poetry vs. Prose, Proposals, and More Connections
Watson Fellowship hopefuls, in the midst of panicking and editing their umpteenth draft, typically want advice on the process of writing a Watson proposal. Moondil had some very good tips and suggestions for them. When writing her Watson proposal she worked very closely with a professor in the Spanish Department – Dr. Fred de Rosset. She suggested to find someone who “knows you well, who is a good person, and who knows how to listen.”
Admittedly, Moon went through several hundred drafts while writing her proposal. She explained how English was not her first language (she is from Bangladesh), and how Dr. de Rosset had her “tell stories” about why she made specific word choices in her essay. He then was able to help her refine the wording of her proposal. They met many times over the span of several months. She said she benefited immensely from the support of her professor.
Not only that, Moondil took advantage of other opportunities across campus. She was striving to make her Watson coherent – once again she used “strings” to describe her process – and wanted to leave no room for messiness in her writing. She aptly said, “You cannot take a word limit negatively. There is a reason why poems are more beautiful than prose.”
Her point was that life is like a novel, and your job is to shorten your story into something like poetry, so that it might perfectly fit your Watson proposal requirements. Moondil emphasized that the Watson Fellowship is an investment in a person, and everyone has something unique to bring to the table, “If you are passionate about something, there is no way you can be ordinary.”
Moondil decided to take advantage of other opportunities on campus too. She went to the Center for Transformative Learning for a mock interview with Amanda Tudor. Those applying for the Watson Fellowship must go through two sets of interviews: one to pick four students to be nominated by from Berea College for the fellowship, and another from a representative from the Thomas J. Watson committee. This was another way to refine the skills she needed to win. Outside of the CTL, she also thoroughly enjoyed a mock interview with Dr. Carol de Rosset.
The advice she left Watson hopefuls is this: if you have a passion, if you truly love it, do not compromise. She explained how that beginning of writing process that she was unable to choose between dancing and drumming for proposal before realizing – why not both? You need to know clearly what you want to do. The core of this truth seemed to be this – your own passion, and the uniqueness of your experience, is what makes your Watson unique and something worth investing in.
The Road Ahead
The journey of a Watson Fellowship winner is both full of happiness and hardships. I asked Moondil what she thought would be the most difficult part of her journey, and she explained that it will be the “release for emotions that cannot be expressed with words” that come from dancing and drumming. Her exploration of rhythmaculture will bring her to different countries and cultures, and she will experience grief and rejoicing with people she has never met before. This will be deeply personal, and she will be fully immersed in emotions she feels are the strongest in human experience. It will be simultaneously difficult and fulfilling.
Moondil started out on the first leg of her journey June 24th, 2016—just a few days after our last- minute interview. She will not step foot on American soil for an entire year. This is the expectation of all Thomas J. Watson Fellowship winners. Her confidence, sense of self, and fearlessness will buoy her throughout all of her times of hardship and happiness. We wish her the best of luck out there!